Monday, December 16, 2013

Why Global Consumer-Capitalist society cannot fix the Climate...

The context:
In the four years since a team of European scientists warned that burning only half of the world’s proven, economically recoverable fossil fuel reserves would push temperatures well beyond the danger level, global emissions have only continued to rise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent fifth report says that to have a reasonable chance of keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius we must reduce net anthropogenic emissions to zero well before 2050. What follows is a very brief explanation of the reasons why some of us think consumer society is inherently incapable of solving this and other related problems…

1.    A 100% Renewable System will be too costly to run a consumer society.
Despite rosy projections for running the world on renewable energy alone, there is an excellent empirical case that replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources would not be affordable because of the built-in redundancy and energy-storage capability that would be required.
Ted Trainer estimates (2013) that a renewable energy system to provide for current EU electricity demand of 380 GW would cost $3.4 trillion. This is about 0.84% of European GDP.  In the early 2000s annual investment in rich countries in all forms of energy, not just electricity, was around 0.7% of GDP.  By comparison, the capital cost of 380 GW of coal-fired power stations would be around 760 billion, or less than $25 billion p.a., or under one-sixth of the above sum.
These figures all take into account common predictions for future expected reduction in capital cost prices (i.e 50% $ reduction for Solar Thermal).
And the above figures do not take into account….
·      Other Costs: big cost items have not been included such as the many very long distance (up to 5,000 km) high voltage power transmission lines from North Africa to carry an average 75% of 380 GW, the embodied energy needed to produce all the plant which must be deducted from the gross output figures above to arrive at net output, the cost of the hydroelectric component, the additional plant needed to cope with peak demand as distinct from average demand, and the cost of the very big biomass component that would be required. Adding these might double the above sum.
·      Intermittency problems – Sometimes the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine across whole regions, like the EU. It is very likely that Europe would experience many periods of three or more days in which there would be little or no solar contribution and that some of these would have overlapped with periods in which there was also little or no wind energy input. A four day gap for Europe would require storage of some 380 GW x 24 hours x 4 days = 36,500 GWh when at present the typical solar thermal plant can store only about 200 MWh. Using current technology you would need 180,000 solar thermal generators to store the required energy.
·      The likely increase price of fossil fuel inputs - renewables depend on fossil fuel inputs for their production (see below), but these resources are likely to get increasingly scarce in the near future leading to prices rises which will have to be factored into the cost of renewables …
·      The other 80% of energy needed…The above figures only account electricity demand but, globally, electricity only accounts for 17% of all energy. The rest is made up of heating 5 percent, miscellaneous "other" fuel combustion 8.6 percent, industry 14.7 percent, industrial processes another 4.3 percent, transportation 14.3 percent, agriculture 13.6 percent, land-use changes (mainly deforestation) 12.2 percent (World Resources Institute, 2010).  
Trainer (2012) also sets out a numerical case that to supply projected 2050 world energy demand (which is expected to be double present levels) via renewables would require investment totals that are at least 10 times the present proportion of GDP that currently goes into energy.
To top it off, the costs would be even higher in a world where everyone used as much energy as the average Australian. The 700 EJ/y 2050 supply target Trainer used to arrive at the above cost estimates would give the 10 billion people living in 2050 a per capita final energy consumption of 70 GJ/y. This is around one-third of the present Australian level.  Thus if renewable sources were to provide all the worlds people in 2050 with the present Australian per capita energy consumption, the supply target would have to be three times the above figure!! How affordable would that be??
2.   Regardless of theoretical potential, renewables are unlikely to be scaled up in time to achieve a safe climate…
The academics Patrick Moriarty and Damon Honnery show (2011) that achieving a 2-degree safe climate target by 2050 would require scaling down fossil fuel use dramatically, even when a full and optimistic roll out of carbon and capture storage technology (CCS) has been assumed. They also show that nuclear energy is very unlikely, for various reasons (apart from moral), to make a significantly increased contribution. To fill the gap renewables would therefore have to be massively ramped up. Wind would have to be responsible for 72 EJ ‘which is over twice the most optimistic estimates’ by authoritative bodies such as the Global Wind energy council (Moriarity & Honniery, 2011: 182). Solar thermal would have to provide 500 EJ which would be ‘four orders of magnitude over current use,’ and would be ‘many times greater than even the most ambitious solar farm schemes being discussed for the world’s deserts’ (Moriarity & Honniery, 2011: 182)  
Scaling up wind and solar energy outputs this quickly would therefore be such a herculean task that it seems highly improbable that it will be ‘anywhere near satisfied’ (Moriarity & Honniery, 2011: 182). As such, to have any chance of limiting average global temperature rise to 2 °C, they recommend a vast reduction in total global energy use from present levels of around 500EJ to around 300EJ of primary energy. This would provide a global average per capita consumption of 33GJ per person. To put this in perspective it would be roughly one fifth of present per capita final Australian energy usage (180 GJ)!!
3.   Renewables are dependent on Non-Renewable Resources!
As Down Stover says: ‘Renewable energy sounds so much more natural and believable than a perpetual-motion machine, but there's one big problem: Unless you're planning to live without electricity and motorized transportation, you need more than just wind, water, sunlight, and plants for energy. You need raw materials, real estate, and other things that will run out one day. You need stuff that has to be mined, drilled, transported, and bulldozed -- not simply harvested or farmed. You need non-renewable resources’ (Stover, 2011).
Stover goes on to give the following examples:
·      Solar power. ‘Even after being redesigned to use air-cooled condensers that will reduce its water consumption by 90 percent, California's Blythe Solar Power Project, which will be the world's largest when it opens in 2013, will require an estimated 600 acre-feet of groundwater annually for washing mirrors, replenishing feedwater, and cooling auxiliary equipment’ (Stover, 2011).
·      Geothermal power. ‘These projects also depend on groundwater -- replenished by rain, yes, but not as quickly as it boils off in turbines (Stover, 2011).’
·      Wind power. ‘According to the American Wind Energy Association, the 5,700 turbines installed in the United States in 2009 required approximately 36,000 miles of steel rebar and 1.7 million cubic yards of concrete (enough to pave a four-foot-wide, 7,630-mile-long sidewalk). The gearbox of a two-megawatt wind turbine contains about 800 pounds of neodymium and 130 pounds of dysprosium -- rare earth metals. They are rare because they're found in scattered deposits, rather than in concentrated ores, and are difficult to extract (Stover, 2011). These rare earths are mainly mined in China and have created lakes of toxic waste which have ‘killed farmland for miles around, made thousands of people ill and put one of China’s key waterways in jeopardy’ (Parry & Douglas, 2011).
·      Biomass. ‘Expanding energy crops will mean less land for food production, recreation, and wildlife habitat. In many parts of the world where biomass is already used extensively to heat homes and cook meals, this renewable energy is responsible for severe deforestation and air pollution’. (Stover, 2011)
·      Hydropower. ‘The amount of concrete and steel in a wind-tower foundation is nothing compared with Grand Coulee or Three Gorges, and dams have an unfortunate habit of hoarding sediment and making fish, well, non-renewable’ (Stover, 2011).
4.   And if we do get access to cheap clean energy, we will only destroy the environment faster…
The academic Steb Fisher points out, ‘the current trajectory of biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse is being driven by cutting down forests, over-fishing, chemical pollution, soil degradation and erosion, habitat destruction, desertification and so on. These activities are all a function of the vast amount of energy we have at our disposal. We have too much and, as we use it, we damage ecosystems. Fisher estimates that, regardless of climate change, affluent countries such as Australia must reduce energy and material consumption to 6 per cent of current levels in order to end the current holocaust of species extinction and for humanity to have a good chance of long-term survival. (Fisher, 2013).
5.   And now the other big global problems….
Apart from energy and ecological problems global capitalist-consumer society deprives most of the world’s people of a fair share of world resources, generates armed conflict, and is leading to deteriorating social cohesion and quality of life, even in rich countries…
6.   But this is NOT an argument against transition to 100% renewables!!
We must move to full dependence on 100% renewables as soon as possible.  But it is an argument that we cannot run an energy-intensive affluent society on them, let alone one that insists on limitless economic growth….
What then to do?
The magnitude of the over-consumption problem calls for a radical alternative to consumer-capitalist society, well described as the  “The Simpler Way” (Trainer, 2009). This would involve people organizing frugal but sufficient material lifestyles within mostly local economies made up of small farms and firms, using local resources and labor to meet local needs. There would be no economic growth, and the GDP would be a small fraction of its present level.
The Simpler Way would be defined by:
·      Simpler lifestyles, much less production and consumption, much less concern with luxury, affluence, possessions and wealth.

·      Small, highly self-sufficient local economies, largely independent of the global economy.

·      More cooperative and participatory ways, enabling people in small communities to take control of their own development.

·      A new economy, one not driven by profit or market forces, and  a zero-growth or steady-state overall economy,  which produces much less  than the present economy.

·      Some very different values, especially cooperation not competition, community not individualism, and frugality and self-sufficiency not acquisitiveness and consuming (Trainer, 2009).
The Simpler Way is about ensuring a very high quality of life for all without anywhere near as much production, consumption, exporting, investment, resource use, environmental damage, work etc. as there is now.  There are many rich alternative sources of satisfaction other than material acquisition and consuming.  Consider having much time for arts and crafts and personal growth, living in a rich and supportive community, having to go to work for money only two days a week, living in a diverse and productive leisure-rich landscape, having socially worthwhile and enjoyable work with no fear of unemployment...and knowing you are not contributing to global problems. There is no need to sacrifice modern technology to achieve these benefits.
Peaking resources and environmental crises mean that our current way of life is not sustainable. Therefore it will not continue. People around the world are also facing a decline in their living standards purely for economic reasons. As a response to these issues, there are people working to build the beginnings of a simpler way in their communities all over the world. The hope is that these groups will be sufficiently well established to provide a base for reconstruction as existing systems begin (or continue) to fail. There are small but thriving “Transition Towns,” movement as well as movements known as Voluntary SimplicityPermacultureSlow Food. There is also Doing It Ourselves, a Melbourne Based organization, which is trying to raise awareness about these issues. By far the best thing YOU can do to help defuse global problems is to join these movements. At this stage, most of these are only implementing reforms within consumer-capitalist society, but they provide the best hope for developing communities that will eventually take control of their own fate and build highly self-sufficient local economies.
Renewable energy is often touted as the solution to climate change in large part since compared to massively reducing energy use, it is seen to be something that would allow our industrial economy to continue, and therefore to be more politically palatable. The issue is that beyond a rapid transition to 100% renewables not seeming likely or feasible, it wouldn't actually solve the environmental problem (let alone equality problems). It's therefore irresponsible for environmentalists to promote it, by itself, as a solution to climate change and other environmental problems. Sure 100% renewables is part of the picture, but this demand must be put in the context of a broader struggle for radical cultural, political and economic change towards a Simpler Way.
What we need to be working on is the beginnings of a system that makes sense for people and the planet, which can be scaled up as soon as people start to realize the situation we've gotten ourselves into. This strategy doesn't rely on campaigning governments or corporations - a strategy in which we have very little power. In any case, even if they wanted to, governments cannot push through this revolution for us. We have to do it ourselves! This is because the Simpler Way requires ordinary citizens to have the skills and dispositions to co-operatively and democratically run their local neighborhoods, suburbs and regions. Governments won’t be able to do this well from on high. It will be up to us. The advantages of this strategy are obvious. As Trainer says: ‘This revolutionary activity is positive, constructive and enjoyable. In working for the revolution we will be starting to learn and practice the ideal ways that will be the norm after the revolution is completed – as distinct from having to fight and defeat a powerful enemy before we can start to build a good society.’ (Trainer, 2009).
For more info on the Simpler Way see:
1.    Douglas, E., Parry, S., 2011. ‘In China, the true cost of Britain's clean, green wind power experiment: Pollution on a disastrous scale,’ Mail Online, Available at [Accessed 15 October 2013].
2.   Fisher, S., 2013. ‘Our sustainability crisis didn’t start and doesn’t stop at climate change’ Available at [Accessed 13 October, 2013].
3.   Honnery, D., Moriarty, P., 2011. ‘The rise and fall of carbon civilization’ Springer.
4.   Stover, D., 2011. ‘The myth of renewable energy,’ Found at
5.   Trainer, T., 2012. ‘Can Renewable Energy Sustain Consumer Societies? A Negative Case. Simplicity Institute Report 12e.
6.   Trainer, T., 2013. The Limits to Renewable: A Short Statement of the Case. Found at
7.   Trainer, T., 2010. ‘The Simpler Way: An Outline of the Global Situation, the Sustainable Alternative Society and the Transition to it,’ Found at
8.   World Resources Institute, WRI Navigating the Numbers, Table 1. pp. 4-5 .

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